Denver’s One-Lung Army: Disease, Disability, and Debility in a Frontier City


From Nursing Clio by Jacqueline Antonovich

In 1879 the famous showman, P.T. Barnum joked that, “Coloradoans are the most disappointed people I ever saw. Two-thirds of them come here to die and they can’t do it.”1 Barnum was referring to Colorado’s growing reputation in the late-nineteenth century as a popular health destination. Long before the state became known as a world-class ski destination or a haven for marijuana tourism, thousands of health seekers flocked to Colorado for its ample sunshine, high altitude, and excellent air quality – attributes believed critical in providing respite to those suffering from consumption (now known as tuberculosis). Quite early in the state’s history various city boosters, businessmen, and railroad executives began courting elite health seekers to the region.

Colorado’s fame as a health paradise became so preeminent that between 1890 and 1920, historians estimate that as many as forty percent of the state’s new residents relocated from the East to improve either their own health or that of a family member.2 Journalist Roscoe Fleming perhaps said it best when he argued that “consumption” brought more people to Denver than did the search for gold; indeed, he noted, the TB bacillus should be “commemorated in stone.”3The shifting responses to these migrants in rapidly developing cities in the West, or what historian Gunther Barth called, “instant cities,” offer a unique site to explore the relationship between disability, citizenship, and urban development at the turn of the century.4

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